University of Edinburgh
 

Promoting social inclusion of pupils with visual impairment in
mainstream schools in Scotland

Chapter 4 What do schools do to support pupils?

We visited 4 primary and 4 secondary schools. Two of the primary schools had specialised units/centres for visually impaired pupils, as did one of the secondary schools. When discussing the interviews with teachers we have indicated their position, the type of school (primary or secondary) and have indicated which school by a letter. The schools are:

School A Primary school on periphery of a city. School roll over 200 pupils
School B Primary school in industrial town. School roll over 500 pupils.
School C Secondary school in small town. School roll over 1,000 pupils
School D Secondary school serving large geographical area. School roll over 1,300 pupils.
School E Primary school in rural area. School roll over 300 pupils.
School F Secondary school in inner-city. School roll over 1,000 pupils.
School G Secondary school in small town. School roll over 1,200 pupils
School H Primary school on periphery of industrial town. School roll over 300 pupils.

School staff interviews

Interviews with school staff took place after we had interviewed the pupils. Because of the wide range of responsibilities and experiences of the staff interviewed we used a topic schedule which would allow for particular experiences of working with a pupil, or general expertise regarding pupils with a visual impairment, to be fully discussed. Our questions included: responsibility for pupils with a visual impairment; resources and facilities available in the school; school ethos; examples of good practice to support social competency; and staff development issues. We interviewed a wide range of staff (see below). Three groups of TVI (teachers of the visually impaired) were interviewed together (groups of 3, 2 and 2). All other staff were interviewed individually.

Interviews:

Position Numbers interviewed
Class teacher primary 3
Subject teacher secondary 2
TVI’s 9
Speech and language therapist 1
Learning Support 4
SEN Auxiliaries 1
Special teacher (primary) 2
Headteacher (primary) 1
Senr. teacher for sensory impaired 1
Total 24


We will discuss the interviews with teachers under the following headings:

Awareness

Awareness

We first asked all the teachers a general question about school ethos and inclusion in order to establish the general atmosphere in which they felt they worked. The majority of those interviewed said they felt the schools they worked in did have a positive and supportive ethos. There was some criticism by peripatetic TVI’s that inclusion was OK, but could be better in some schools, and a comment by a Learning Support teacher that an inclusive ethos was quite positive towards those with a sensory impairment, but not so positive towards those with other learning difficulties.

These teachers express what they understand as an inclusive ethos:

I see it as the children (with VI) being included in the mainstream class and the (TVI) teachers included in the class as well …. I think inclusion works both ways, we (TVI) are included in the school and we include other children with us. (TVI, primary school B )

The staff here are used to having VI pupils in the class, and one of us in class as well. I think its seems a very positive thing in the school, in fact I know it is. And it is good for the other children too … it sort of expands their experience (TVI, secondary school C)

The importance of a positive ethos towards inclusion is one that was seen by this teacher to have repercussions throughout the school:

Most of them (other pupils) are extremely accepting … They pick up a lot on the teachers approach (special teacher, primary school E)

By describing some of their experiences, we were able to glean an understanding of the awareness of teachers of the emotional and social issues that may face pupils with a visual impairment. Awareness is, however, an ongoing process and often appeared to emerge when a unforseen issue arose, or when a situation had not been resolved successfully:

Our first blind pupil … academically it was a great success …. But a lot of the staff and pupils didn’t know what to do when she came down the corridor …and the corridor would fall silent … it was pretty horrible .. so we had a talk with the guidance team in the school and things filtered down through PSD classes … and gradually it was resolved. (TVI, secondary school C)

One teacher related how, at Christmas time, a pupil with VI asked to go to the school dance. The TVI attempted, with the guidance teacher, to find out if there were any classmates going who would be able to ‘look out’ for this pupil. However, the general profile of the year group made this very difficult, and consequently the pupil didn’t attend the Christmas dance. This teacher went on to note:

We need to think about this again because it will loom again quite shortly, and I know she will want to go. (TVI, secondary school C)

Letting pupils with a visual impairment take an active role in decisions and strategies that may help them is also an important aspect of awareness:

I let him try out different positions and asked him which one he felt was the one where he could see the blackboard best (class teacher, primary school H)

He likes to be independent. He could come here (LS Base) and download stuff, but he preferred to do things at home. I think different pupils respond differently and the kind of support you offer may vary depending on the pupils. (leaning support, secondary school F)

At the moment, she is getting more support than she would wish for, but that’s going to be reviewed shortly. She has identified where she felt she didn’t need support and where she felt she did. (support teacher, secondary school D)

Offering support in a subtle way, also indicated an awareness that many pupils do not want to be singled out:

Try and demonstrate near her so you don’t make a big issue out of ‘come down to the front’ (PE teacher, secondary school C)

The people that support her in class also work with other pupils … so she’s not getting singled out, which could be embarrassing (learning support, secondary school D)

You try for a ‘withdraw’ kind of approach. Yes, you are working with a whole group, but you are there at a distance. They (VI pupils) know you are still there for them, but not standing right beside them all the time. (TVI, primary school A)

The importance of successful (and sometimes unsuccessful) inter-personal relationships between pupil and support staff was also acknowledged, and strategies put in place:

We decided to give the pupils a variety of experiences with different members of staff (support). If you’re too attached to the one person all the time, both sides can find it stressful. (learning support, secondary school D)

Informal support was also recognised as important:

I have little informal chats with her every few weeks and ask how thing’s are going. Also we keep an eye on her. (support teacher, secondary school D)

They do meet here in the morning when their taxi drivers drop them off. They have to tell us that they’re here … often that can be a wee time where, if they’ve got a problem, or if they’ve to remember something or if they’re not feeling well they’ll tell us about that then. When the bell goes they just join the others. (TVI, primary school B).

Initiatives that promote social inclusion

Although school ethos and awareness is a crucial part of promoting social inclusion in school, many schools we visited proactively initiated strategies to support their pupils with a visual impairment. National strategies such as circle time and PSD classes are a good starting point:

Circle time and things like that are a really good way of discussing that (bullying), and encouraging children to treat each other with dignity (special class teacher, primary school E)

There is circle time in P3 – a lot of talking and listening and not interupting somebody and face them if you’re speaking to them – that’s for everybody – its good for our children, but its included for everybody. (TVI, primary school A)

The mentoring system (being developed) will be for children who need support, even for a short period of time or over a longer period of time. It will help them overcome social difficulties or poor inter-personal relationships, or to support them in their academic work, or if they’re having difficulty (headteacher, primary school E)

They (other pupils) have had talks about the way they can help people and its been videoed … they did some wee work sheets and things you can work through, but its ongoing… We (VI teachers) did a few PSD slots and have a ten minute awareness talk with the rest of the class. (TVI, primary school A)

Buddy schemes and mentoring are, however, often perceived as something that would involve a pupil with a visual impairment as the recipient. However, this pupil with a visual impairment had recently become a buddy to two younger pupils:

L has coped very well … she has a sighted buddy and a little girl who is blind … the sighted child really enjoys chatting to her. (TVI, primary school A)

This pupil was encouraged to attend a lunch-time club:

We’re trying to get S (pupil with VI) into the lunch-time drop in club to get her to mix with some friends ... She lacks confidence a bit. (learning support, secondary school D)

This initiative was part of a larger strategy that recognised the importance of a successful transition from primary to secondary school:

Once children (with VI) are identified as coming here, we put them into one of our local feeder primaries for one day a week … so they get to know other pupils who are coming. (TVI, secondary school C)

Although few teachers interviewed saw bullying as an issue in the same way that the pupils and parents did, this school had been proactive in putting initiatives in place to support vulnerable pupils:

The school has the FAB system (Friends against Bullying). S (pupil with VI) had had problems in primary school … we’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that she’s going to be happy here… She’s also become part of a small social skills group to raise self esteem, and last week they did a self esteem rating test and S came out really high. That was a contrast … the difference is the fact that she’s got some friends now. (support teacher, secondary school D)

Several teachers were aware of the added difficulties that pupils with a visual impairment might face in making friends:
Its just not quite as easy for them to make friends, basically because they don’t see them or picture them in a room – you have to be so close before you can see expressions and that sort of thing. (TVI, secondary school C)

As recognised by this teacher positive relationships are based on respect, not on pity, and teachers can play an important role in fostering such respect, by providing opportunities for the pupils to be seen by their classmates in a positive light:

These children aren’t being friendly with them because they feel sorry for them, they’re friendly because they’re nice to be friends with, not because they need to be included. Children can be very sympathetic as well as cruel. If they (pupils with VI) can give a contribution to the class that makes the class look at them and think ‘oh yes!’, then that helps. (special class teacher, primary school E)

Support and communication

Although many of the initiatives mentioned above would be supported at national and school level, the personal input from a teacher is a vital ingredient of a successful intervention. We therefore asked teachers if they felt supported, and what, if any, support they would like to have. This teacher was happy with the support she received:

In terms of the formal structures in the school they are very supportive … I have never felt that I have just been left to get on with it. (class teacher, primary school A)

Most of the teachers we talked to were TVI’s who, if they were based in a unit for visually impaired, were able to offer regular informal support to class teachers. For those TVI’s who provided a peripatetic service it was often felt to be more difficult to provide support for class/subject teachers:

Being specialist teachers we should collaborate and let them (teachers) know (about pupils with a visual impairment), but its trying to find the time to get everything done. (TVI primary school B)

Formal support for class/subject teachers via staff development was mentioned several times, but usually as a ‘one-off’ occurrence. This TVI recalled providing an infrequent awareness raising day:

We have a full awareness raising day – we don’t do it every year, but we have done that as part of the in-service days. (TVI, school B)

Generally the feeling was that much support (especially around concerns about social inclusion) was informal and although greatly valued, it did raise issues about the content of formal communication structures:

If we collaborate it’s usually about what part of the curriculum we’re going to do and what our aims will be and how many of the objectives will be reached and then we don’t have time to discuss jut general things. I would say collaboration with colleagues is so important, but we don’t have time for it. (TVI, primary school B)

What we do is at the beginning of each session we go into the departments to talk about pupils with a visual impairment and about what their needs in class are, and about what support they will be getting, and sometimes issues come up at these meetings as well. (TVI, secondary school C)

Even within formal support structures, the communication of information within schools and between teachers is not always straightforward:

A booklet is produced … all their needs are in here and this is produced for staff … the majority of teachers are very aware of who she is and her needs, but you’ll get the odd teacher that maybe doesn’t tie up the name with the child – but that’s the exception to the rule. (support teacher, secondary school D)

The teacher who used to forget that she couldn’t read his writing has left! I don’t know how often I told that man he had to write bigger. (learning support, secondary school G)

Teachers did, however, feel better supported when there had been good communication between school and parent, and school and pupil. Being able to exchange information and discuss issues is important for everybody concerned:

I was just thinking of primary/secondary liaison and how the information got to us. I felt there were good structures there … Pupil with VI came to school with me being aware of what she might be needing. I didn’t label her, but it gave me background information. (support teacher, secondary school D)

We try to be open about communication and make sure people are kept informed and that information is channelled appropriately. We expect every member of staff to take on board the opinions of others if somebody notices something about the child that they haven’t (headteacher, primary school E)

Support for teachers in the classroom is an important issue, but two teachers (a primary class teacher and a secondary subject teacher) felt that they did not ‘get to know’ their visually impaired pupils as well as others in the class. This was not a criticism of the support offered, rather an awareness that having another adult directly involved with a pupil could restrict teacher-pupil relationships forming in the usual way.

Summary of teachers' views

It was recognised by the majority of teachers that the ethos of the school was important in fostering inclusive practices and attitudes for teachers and pupils.

  • PSD and Circle time initiatives were seen as important.
  • Many teachers felt better supported in fulfilling their role of supporting pupils with a visual impairment, if there were inclusive structures in place and effective communication/exchange of information between staff.
  • Support teachers in the classroom could prevent teacher-pupil relationships forming in the usual way.